BONHOEFFER

Grade: B

The treatment is utterly conventional, but the subject quite extraordinary in Martin Doblmeier’s film about the Lutheran minister whose theological vision of the Christian community led him to take a principled stand against the Nazi movement and who was ultimately executed for his role in an assassination plot against Hitler. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the relatively few important ecclesiastical figures in the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s who demonstrated absolute devotion to the simple message of the gospel and was willing to risk his own life in doing so. He remains an important example of committed and activist Christianity, and at a time when memory of his idealism and sacrifice has begun to fade, Doblmeier’s documentary serves a salutary purpose.

That being said, it must be admitted that “Bonhoeffer” approaches its subject in a fashion that, while eminently sound and straightforward, doesn’t show a great deal of imagination. It uses found footage, photos, excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s writings read by Klaus Maria Brandauer, and talking-head interviews with those who knew him, along with contemporary theologians and historians, to present the necessary biographical information as well as an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s thought and an appreciation of his steadfastness and humanity. The material is well-chosen–the result of assiduous searches in numerous archives and the willingness of the Bonhoeffer family to share its heirlooms, as well as visits to the places where the theologian lived and worked (the portion of the film dealing with his early studies in New York, where he became familiar with the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and was impressed by the work of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, is especially notworthy)–and the resultant portrait is certainly impressive. At the same time, one can envisage an account that would carry still greater emotional weight than this competent but rather straightlaced one does.

“Bonhoeffer” is a solid and respectable piece about a man of enormous integrity and courage. If it cannot be entirely worthy of its subject, that is perhaps only to be expected.